By Andrew Heck

Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Kerry Towle, Chair, Canadian Meat Council (CMC) together at CMC’s 2022 annual general meeting (AGM) and 100th anniversary banquet.

The Canadian Meat Council (CMC) held its annual general meeting (AGM) in Ottawa in mid-June, along with a banquet to mark 100 years since the organization’s founding.

“Our centennial celebration is testament to the longstanding efforts of the Canadian meat industry to grow and prosper,” said Chris White, President & CEO, CMC. “Canadian meat packers have proven time and time again that we are here to defy expectations for a country our size compared to some of our international contemporaries.”

CMC represents about 90 to 95 per cent of all pork and beef processed in Canada, in addition to other red meats. These fresh and processed products originate from more than 200 facilities across the country, shipping product to more than 120 countries worldwide. CMC works with its processor members and associate members – such as food ingredient suppliers, packaging material suppliers, equipment manufacturers and service providers – to advocate for international trade and regulatory policy frameworks that protect food safety and market access, while also helping the industry stay collectively competitive domestically and globally.

When it comes to political decisions and livestock disease challenges at home or abroad, producers and packers alike can be deeply impacted. For the hog industry, the continued, uninhibited flow of pork from the abattoir to end-users is fundamental to the financial success of the sector. While the composition of the industry has changed over time, what has remained unchanged is its devotion to expanding business opportunities and focusing on providing safe and wholesome meat for consumers.

Canadian meat goes global

Exports of Canadian pork and beef increased five-fold in terms of volume and value between 1988 and 2021.

In the aftermath of the First World War, more than a dozen meatpacking firms gathered in Toronto, in 1919, to discuss the formation of a voluntary trade association, which would eventually become the ‘Industrial and Development Council of Canadian Meat Packers,’ in 1922, officially changing to the ‘Meat Packers’ Council of Canada,’ in 1952.

The organization was renamed the ‘Canadian Meat Council,’ in 1980, at which time major changes were afoot in the industry, with a focus on diversifying from mostly domestic markets to international ones. Domestic red meat consumption per capita had begun to fall, as a result of increasing food consumer choice and a shift to proteins like chicken. As a result, packers began to seek new markets for their goods. It was around this time that the integration of hog production and pork processing became a smart business decision for packers who were eager to secure hog supply for reliable volumes of pork.

In 1991, the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) and CMC came together to form Canada Pork International (now known simply as ‘Canada Pork’) – the definitive link in the value chain that brought together producers and packers.

“The value proposition for Verified Canadian Pork hinges on collaboration between those who raise hogs and those who process them,” said Trevor Sears, President & CEO, Canada Pork. “Whether we market pork to Canadians or our overseas partners, strength across the value chain is what makes quality assurance guarantees possible.”

Today, about half of hogs on-farm in Canada belong to producer-packer integrated systems, while independent producers continue to play an important role for all federal plants. In 2020, Canada exported more than 70 per cent of all pork produced in the country, primarily to China, Japan, the U.S. and Mexico, with large emerging markets in Vietnam and the Philippines. Considering all global pork traders, Canada ranks first among export-dependent jurisdictions in the world, followed by Chile, which ships away just over 60 per cent of its pork. The U.S., meanwhile, moves approximately 30 per cent of its pork out-of-country.

Looking forward at issues affecting trade and regulatory policy frameworks, the global rise of African Swine Fever (ASF) has characterized the pork industry narrative in recent years, which intimately affects hog producers as much as packers and others in the value chain.

Continued trade requires disease control

Canada Pork’s handbook covers a wide range of topics related to the federal pork processing system, responsible for all exports. Canadian pork processing standards are recognized as the best in the world, in line with jurisdictions like Europe, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

CMC consults with the Government of Canada closely on international trade agreements to ensure meat remains front-and-centre in negotiations. Better access for Canadian meat abroad demands consistency in standards at home. This includes mandatory preventive control programs and enforced outcome-based regulations in meat plants, all the way back to on-farm programs. When Canadian production standards align with international expectations, trade barriers are much easier to overcome.

Starting in 2018, with the spread of ASF in China, the establishment of zoning agreements became a priority for the industry, and today, agreements are in place with the U.S., U.K., European Union (E.U.), Singapore and Vietnam. An agreement with Japan remains a high priority, as Japanese officials prepare to visit Canadian farms, plants and labs in the coming months to perform audits. Should an agreement be struck with Japan, taking into account the other existing agreements, more than 40 per cent of Canadian pork exports would be theoretically secure, if ASF were to strike.

“Zoning is Canada’s best chance at ensuring business continuity in the event of ASF,” said Rick Bergmann, Chair, CPC. “The importance of these political decisions cannot be overstated, even as producers focus on day-to-day farm operations.” 

In alignment with other national stakeholders, CMC is concentrating on supporting ASF mitigation efforts, such as enhancing surveillance to avoid the entry of pork products from infected countries through various ports of entry, enhanced biosecurity at the farm and plant level, wild boar eradication, passive surveillance sampling at key sites, small-scale producer awareness and by examining cross-border transport vehicle traffic on industry biosecurity. As such, CMC is an active partner on Canada’s ASF Executive Management Board (EMB), which includes representation from industry stakeholders and government officials working to implement the Pan-Canadian Action Plan on ASF. To reinforce the organization’s commitment in this area, CMC has joined CPC and the Government of Canada to study how an ASF outbreak would impact the Canadian industry from an economic perspective.

In the event trade comes to a halt due to ASF, pork supplies already in cold storage, awaiting export, will need to stay put, with additional back-filled pork arriving until the supply of market hogs on-farm and in transport is finally siphoned off. This would quickly become a complicated situation, as the Canadian public is not equipped to absorb (consume) the surplus pork that will be left in the lurch. For the countries with which Canada has agreed on zoning, a necessary first step would be to wait until CFIA has successfully established primary control zones (areas where the virus is known to exist) before declaring the rest of the country free of ASF. At that point, trade may resume in areas outside of the primary control zones with partners who are confident in our industry’s efforts to stop the spread.

As CMC furthers its advocacy on cultivating new trade relationships and strengthening existing ones, it would seem to be the unanimous opinion that ASF prevention, rather than response, is the preferred course. But it does stand to reason that, the more zoning agreements we have with our valued trading partners, the less the damage might be if the inevitable occurs.

Labour shortage has a ripple effect

In 2020, three beef facilities in Alberta, representing more than three-quarters of Canadian beef slaughter capacity, were closed simultaneously due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

When COVID-19 struck Canada’s meatpacking plants, the beef and pork value chains were in for a shock. Several federally inspected pork and beef facilities experienced voluntary or mandatory shutdowns, due to COVID-19 cases among employees. CMC played a pivotal role – working with provincial and federal government officials and other stakeholders – to ensure plants were able to be up-and-running as soon as possible, with worker safety in mind.

On the whole, labour availability remains a major challenge for packers and producers. Last year, CMC reported more than 9,000 vacancies within Canadian packing plants, ultimately affecting livestock slaughter volume. Vacancies also reduce capacity for further processing, which limits packers’ ability to create value-added products, prompting them to sell primal cuts at a lower price than what more detailed cuts could fetch on the market. This is why CMC advocates very strongly for an enhanced Temporary Foreign Worker Program, in addition to extended opportunities for workers to become Canadian permanent residents or citizens, as newcomers are much likelier to stick with their jobs when opportunities for long-term employment are available.

As labour challenges continue to hamper all aspects of the industry, this reality affects domestic and global food security, which depend on stable food supply.

An industry hungry for excellence

Verified Canadian Pork ‘katarosu’ shoulder roast, specially made with the Japanese consumer in mind. When Costco Japan switched from U.S. to Canadian pork, in 2017, sales improved.

More than nine out of 10 Canadians still eat meat, and a growing affluent population in the developing world is seeking out meat more frequently as a dietary staple. This is great news for both producers and packers, so long as the industry can continue working toward the common goal of sustainability and progress.

Canada’s hog producers and pork packers, bolstered by the work of CMC, continue to prove to buyers that the Canadian red meat industry is poised to serve their needs for years to come, as it has done for the past century and even longer. The COVID-19 pandemic, political regime changes, economically protectionist ideologies and industry hurdles aside, much opportunity exists for Canadian red meat to thrive in spite of challenges.